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ISSN: 2161-0487
Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy
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Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad? The Theory of Musical Equilibration and the Emotions of Chords

Daniela Willimek1* and Bernd Willimek2
1Karlsruhe University of Music, Germany
2German Society for Music Psychology, Germany
Corresponding Author : Daniela Willimek
Karlsruhe University of Music
Reuchlinstrasse 32, 75015 Bretten, Germany
Tel: ++49-7252-975542
E-mail: willimek.danae.discs@t-online.de
Received February 27, 2014; Accepted March 18, 2014; Published April 03, 2014
Citation: Willimek D, Willimek B (2014) Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad? The Theory of Musical Equilibration and the Emotions of Chords. J Psychol Psychother 4:139. doi: 10.4172/2161-0487.1000139
Copyright: © 2014 RWillimek D, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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Abstract

One of the most exciting areas in the field of musicology is attaining solid new insights into the correlation between music and emotions. The Theory of Musical Equilibration now presents a new perspective on this topic. The Theory states that music itself cannot convey emotions, which is to say it is no more effective than other approach to expressing feelings. Instead, music communicates processes of the will which the listener identifies with, and relating to these processes gives music its emotional content.
“Music and Emotions -Research on the Theory of Musical Equilibration” is the name of the English version of the German book entitled Musik und Emotionen-Studien zur Strebetendenz Theorie. Authors Daniela and Bernd Willimek present their theory and demonstrate its validity using examples from musical literature and test results. The book was translated from the German by Laura Russell.
The first part of the book explains the theory before exploring how it can be interpreted in terms of individual chords and harmonic progressions. A major chord, for example, is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” whereas a minor chord conveys the desire, “No more!” The volume at which a minor chord is played determines whether it is perceived as sorrow or anger. Furthermore, the authors discuss issues such as why a diminished chord is well-suited as the score for film scenes involving fear, or how an augmented chord can convey amazement and astonishment.
In the second part of the book, there is a discussion of test results which show a strong correlation in the way people perceive chords from an emotional standpoint. The Basic Test and the Rocky Test link harmonic sequences to scenes from a fairy tale and to emotional concepts, respectively. The outcome of these tests revealed the musical preferences of over 2000 children and adolescents (including members of the famous Viennese Boys’ Choir) across four continents. Similar tests for use in music therapy are currently being prepared.

Keywords
Music; Emotions; Chords
Review
Despite the fact that there is already a rich history of publications exploring the topic of music and emotions, it is new for there to be insights into this field which are solidly rooted in music theory.
This book describes two complementary studies: one examines the correlation between chords and words with emotional meanings, and the second explores the link between musical selections and emotionally charged scenes from fairy tales. A total of over 2000 volunteers (including members of the world-famous Viennese Boys’ Choir) on four continents took part in these studies.
The volunteers expressed their preferences by selecting specific musical pieces which they felt best matched a particular emotional content. A significantly high correlation was seen among their preferences: 86% chose the same examples, more or less independently of their age, sex or any previous musical training. The test results were also compared with similar examples found in the repertoire of Romantic-era lieder and pop music; this confirmed the correlation between the emotional content of the respective lyrics and the harmonic device the composer chose.
All of the research discussed in this book is explained in detail and illustrated by means of the sheet music included in the text.
The inspiration and the guideline in creating and selecting the musical pieces was Willimek’s Strebetendenz-Theorie, the Theory of Musical Equilibration. This theory states that music itself does not convey emotions: instead, it expresses processes of will that the listener can identify with. It is not until the identification takes place that these processes of will take on an emotional character. This idea is demonstrated using a variety of different chords and harmonic structures. To provide one example, a minor chord does not communicate any sorrow in and of itself: instead, it inspires the listener to identify with the message, “No more.” The dynamics at which the chord is played communicate the message as something which is perceived as sad (when played piano) or angry (when played forte).
This book makes direct references to musical material as it sets forth its arguments. The Theory is especially compelling because of the way it offers a precise analytical description of the emotional effects of musical harmonies and other compositional parameters [1].
 
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  1. Marina Korsakova-Kreyn
    Posted on Nov 15 2016 at 9:13 am
    Dear Daniela, thank you for contacting me on my Touro email. Here are some very basic comments on the Theory of Musical Equilibration as I tried to grasp it from the summary. Unfortunately, the provided link does not allow to access the main body of the book. 1. "The Theory states that music itself cannot convey emotions, which is to say it is no more effective than other approach to expressing feelings. Instead, music communicates processes of the will which the listener identifies with, and relating to these processes gives music its emotional content." This is an excellent theory. Actually, this theory of the process of formation of musical emotion was first formulated by Susanne Langer in her "Philosophy in a New Key" (1942) and it was reinforced and farther explained with the empirical data from our study in affective responses to tonal modulation (Korsakova-Kreyn, 2009; Korsakova-Kreyn & Dowling, 2014). Langer did not use the idea of "will;" she gave a stronger formulation by stating that music recreates "the logic of emotion." 2. "The first part of the book explains the theory before exploring how it can be interpreted in terms of individual chords and harmonic progressions." The empirical studies (see Isabelle Peretz lab), as well as professional musical practice do not agree with this statement. It is not how you play a chord (staccato, tenuto, forte, piano) but in what company of neighboring tones and in what tempo the given chord appears within musical composition. For instance, a fragment in a minor mode could sound rather cheerful for a listener when it is played in a fast tempo; and vise versa, a musical fragment in a major mode but in a slow tempo could sound "sad." When I test my piano students by playing for them an opening section of Mozart "Rondo alla Turka," students of different ages consistently answer that this music is "happy," even if this particular fragment is in a-minor (a moll) tonality. In contrast, when I play for students Beethoven second moment of "Pathetic" Sonata, they perceive it as "sad," despite its A flat-major (As-dur) tonality. The empirical studies demonstrate that mode and tempo interact, that is, they confirm the above results. A quality of individual chords is, of course, interesting, but an individual chord does not create music: music emerges though the interaction of different tonal entities sequenced in time. 3. "...music communicates processes of the will... " In our study in all available degrees of tonal modulation we used semantic differential that included certain potency-related scales that could be compared to expression of will, namely, the "strong-weak" scale and the "firm-wavering" scale. These two scales were not as sensitive to emotional quality of melodic elements as the canonical "happy-sad" scale and the non-canonical (and quasi-synaestetic) "warm-cold" and "bright-dark" scales. The only strong emergence for the "willful" scales was for the melodic direction (upward and downward) - and only if the musical phrase modulated to the near subdominant and dominant steps. 4. "This book describes two complementary studies: one examines the correlation between chords and words with emotional meanings, and the second explores the link between musical selections and emotionally charged scenes from fairy tales." It is true that the most direct way to learn about musical emotion is to ask people to formulate their feeling with words and gestures. But here is caveat that was explained with great precision by Susanne Langer: “Because the forms of human feeling are much more congruent with music form than with the forms of language, music can reveal the nature of feeling and a detail and truth that language cannot approach” (1942). And here is more on the same problems of explaining music with gestures and by other metaphorical ways, “[E]xpressive distinctions are easily encoded by the listeners through the verbal labels, but they are practically untranslatable by bodily mediation, when body expression is induced by the musical stimulus” ( Frances & Bruchon-Schweitzer, 1983). In any event, I congratulate you on your attempts at approaching a very difficult and complex task of understanding the musical emotion. This is a vast and still poorly explored field that needs a lot of empirical research which should be conducted by scientists in collaboration with the highly-trained professional musicians (both theoreticians and performers) and music philosophers. Wishing you the best, Marina Marina Korsakova-Kreyn, PhD mnkors@gmail.com marina.korsakova-kreyn@touro.edu 1.917.327.7687 http://universe-of-music.com https://marina-kreyn.squarespace.com
 

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